Nina Vatolina, ‘Thank you dear Stalin for our happy childhood, 1950
1950 saw the release of another poster in a long-running and popular series of posters on the theme of a ‘happy childhood‘. ‘Thank you dear Stalin for our happy childhood’ by Nina Vatolina depicts a grey-haired Stalin in military uniform, standing on a podium.
He reaches out and touches the arm of the young Pioneer boy, yet is separated in the picture plane from the two children and elevated above them.
The girl carries a bunch of flowers to give to Stalin, but holds it off to the side, reaching up to touch Stalin with her right hand, as one might touch a holy icon. A huge bunch of red roses forms a barrier between them and the little girl cannot actually reach Stalin, just the flowers.
The colour palette in Vatolina’s 1950 poster is more vivid than in earlier posters. The flowers are depicted in a more realistic style and occupy a large space in the image.
The figure of Stalin floats in an undifferentiated background of pure light that illuminates the face of the boy. In earlier happy childhood posters, children are relaxed and celebrating. Not all of them look at Stalin and, where they do look at him, it is with binding affection, from within the same space. Frequently, one of the children engages the viewer by looking directly out from the image.
In the later posters of this genre, the children have been reduced in number and importance and are restrained and respectful. It is clear in this poster that merely to be admitted to Stalin’s presence is an honour and reward. The boy appears in profile and the girl is viewed from the rear, no child engages the viewer’s gaze or embodies the ‘happy childhood’ of the poster’s text.
In 1950, a happy childhood consists entirely in being loyal and dutybound to Stalin. As Stalin is portrayed wearing military uniform, the formality of the occasion is reinforced, and the viewer is also reminded that all citizens owe Stalin a debt of gratitude for victory in the war.
After 1950, the ‘happy childhood’ theme slipped into the background in Soviet posters and poster artists focused on depicting obedient children performing their duty to Stalin by studying hard or taking oaths of allegiance at Pioneer ceremonies.
Petr Golub’, Long life and prosperity to our Motherland! I. Stalin, 1949
Stalin was frequently depicted as the father of the people in Soviet propaganda posters, but is always shown without a female partner.
Stalin had been married twice, his first wife dying young of an illness, and his second wife committing suicide in 1932. The nation saw Stalin mourn Nadia and, from this point on, he did not publicly have a female partner – in fact so little is known of this aspect of his personal life that there is only speculation as to further sexual relationships after Nadia’s death.
Stalin’s life centred around his role as leader and it was easy to depict him as ‘wedded to the nation.’ A famous painting of 1948 by Fyodor Shurpin, ‘The morning of our motherland,’ depicts a calm, reflective Stalin in a plain white tunic, isolated and alone in a muted pastel landscape, his greatcoat draped over his sleeve.
Behind Stalin in the distance, tractors plough the fields and power lines melt into the hazy sky. Stalin is bathed in the early morning light and looks out to the right to the dawn of the communist utopia.
This famous painting is undoubtedly the inspiration for a poster by Petr Golub’ published in 1949 in an edition of 300,000. The poster caption, ‘Long life and prosperity to our motherland,’ is a quote from Stalin.
It is interesting to compare the poster to the painting that inspired it, as the differences between them are telling. A key difference is that Stalin is slightly more face-on to the viewer in the painting than in the poster and looks considerably more tired. In the poster, he is less heavily jowled, his skin brighter, and his moustache more trim.
Stalin has a much more military bearing in the poster, almost standing at attention, while in the Shurpin painting he is relaxed and leans back slightly. In the poster, Stalin wears his military uniform while in the painting he appears as a civilian, a much more private individual, alone at dawn.
The poster is in portrait format, while the painting is in landscape format, hence the poster emphasises the figure of Stalin, while Shurpin’s painting places him in the landscape.
Indeed, in the poster by Golub’, Stalin is not alone, but accompanied by a young Pioneer boy who gazes silently into the future with him, the symbolic son of the wedded union between Stalin and the Motherland. The landscape has also been altered and the Golub’ poster features the national Russian symbol of a birch tree in the foreground (birch is also associated with beginnings), standing straight as Stalin, and a patchwork of lush green fields behind the two figures.
The notion of plenitude and abundance is reinforced by the small sprig of flowers in the child’s hand. A river flows through the landscape, continuing the dual association of Stalin with water, and with the golden light that illuminates him from above.
By drawing so obviously on Shurpin’s painting, the poster suggests the dawn of a new age of abundance for the Soviet Union, the arrival of the long-awaited communist utopia after the dark nights of the Civil War, the purges, and the Great Patriotic War.
Stalin is the father of the nation who cared for, protected, and raised the nation and, in Golub’s poster, the hope of the future lies in the nation’s youth.
V. Fedotov, xxv years of the Komsomol, 1943
In attempting to create an all-encompassing image for a leader with a personality cult, it is necessary to incorporate both stereotypical masculine and feminine traits within the leader persona.
In addition to such typically masculine traits as determination, iron will, bold leadership and a warrior demeanour, Stalin was sometimes also given traditionally female characteristics of nurturing, empathy, modesty and gentleness by his propagandists.
A degree of androgeny in leader personas is quite common in personality cults, and is found in the cults of Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong. One of the major archetypes associated with Stalin throughout his leadership is that of the father of the nation (otets narodov).
In this 1943 poster by Vladimir Fedotov, Stalin is portrayed on the battlefield (which, incidentally, he never visited) and is referred to as a father and ‘apparent husband of Lenin’ in the poster text. Stalin stands above the Soviet fighters and gazes over the field of battle, binoculars in hand.
Despite Lenin appearing as strong and determined in the poster image, the poster caption, in the form of a verse by Kazimir Lisovskii, sees Lenin take on the maternal qualities of love and nurturing.
Meanwhile, Stalin adopts the role of the father and raises the Komsomol generation – these are not children, but young people of fighting age. The poem reads:
In labour and battle we are stronger
Lenin’s banner is draped protectively over the young fighters, like the veil of the Virgin in Orthodox icons of the Feast of Intercession. It is Lenin’s spirit that is invoked to intercede on behalf of the Red Army troops, while Stalin leads the troops in the earthly realm.
Produced on cheap paper without details of place of publication or size of edition, this curious poster celebrates twenty-five years of the Komsomol, although the poster image itself is about the war effort.
Nikolai Zhukov, Thank you Comrade Stalin for our happy life!, 1940
The genre of the happy childhood was a major theme in Soviet propaganda posters featuring Stalin from 1936 to 1950, with a brief interlude during the Great Patriotic War when propaganda had other priorities.
In 1940, with the Soviet Union on the brink of war, it is not only children but the entire population that is infantilised and thanking Stalin for their happy life. A poster by Nikolai Zhukov features a remote and celebrated Stalin as a giant poster on a wall above some youthful observers of a huge parade.
Children and young people wave excitedly from a balcony above a festive parade that extends as far as the eye can see. Revellers carry red banner and images of Lenin and Stalin down a long avenue of apartments.
The apartment blocks are evidence of the state providing quality housing for the people. Two aircraft fly overhead, symbolic of Soviet achievements in aviation and of preparedness for the upcoming war although, in truth, the aircraft that were setting world records in aviation for the USSR were not the sort of aircraft needed to win a war.
Zhukov’s ‘Thank you Comrade Stalin for our happy life!’ makes it clear that the Stalin persona presented by the propagandists of the personality cult is largely symbolic. The poster features a quotation from Vyacheslav Molotov on the Stalin symbol:
‘We have a name that has become the symbol of the victory of socialism. It is the name of the symbol of the moral and political unity of the Soviet people! You know what that name is — STALIN!’
In the Short Biography released in 1947, Stalin’s value as the symbol of a plethora of Bolshevik values is made explicit in the text:
‘In the eyes of the peoples of the U.S.S.R., Stalin is the incarnation of their heroism, their love of their country, their patriotism’
Writing in 1971, with the benefit of historical perspective, Roy Medvedev also regarded Stalin as a rallying symbol to unify and give hope to a suffering population during the Great Patriotic War:
‘Stalin’s image became a sort of symbol existing in the popular mentality independently from its actual bearer. During the war years, as the Soviet people were battered by unbelievable miseries, the name of Stalin, and the faith in him, to some degree, pulled the Soviet people together, giving them hope of victory.’**
Evidence exists that this was true for at least some soldiers. The writer Konstantin Simonov quoted an officer on the Stalingrad front who said he
‘gained all his strength from the idea that our great leader directs everything in our enormous cause from his office in Moscow and thus invests in him, an ordinary colonel, part of his genius and spirit’.***
Poster artist Nikolai Zhukov was a highly decorated People’s Artist of the USSR with two Orders of Lenin, was also a Soviet pilot and was the artistic director of the Studio of Military Artists from 1943.
*G.F. Alexandrov, M.R. Galaktionov, V.S. Kruzhkov, M.B. Mitin, V.D. Mochalov & P.N. Pospelov, Joseph Stalin: a short biography, Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1947, pp. 201-3.
** Roy Aleksandrovich Medvedev, Let history judge: the origins and consequences of Stalinism, New York, Knopf, 1971, p. 749.
*** Quoted in Orlando Figes, The whisperers: private life in Stalin’s Russia, New York, Metropolitan Books, 2007, p. 410.
Dr Anita Pisch
Anita’s new, fully illustrated book, The personality cult of Stalin in Soviet posters, 1929 -1953, published by ANU Press, is available for free download here, and can also be purchased in hard copy from ANU Press.
SPotW61 Babitskii 1944
SPotW62 Pen Varlen 1942
SPotW63 Bayuskin 1942
SPotW64 Belopol'skii 1950
SPotW65 Belopol'skii 1952
SPotW66 Dlugach 1933
SPotW67 Zhitomirskii 1942
SPotW68 Toidze 1949
SPotW69 Mikhailov 1937
SPotW70 Cheprakov 1939
SPotW76 Toidze 1943
SPotW77 Futerfas 1936
SPotW78 Mukhin 1945
SPotW79 Golub' 1948
SPotW80 Karpovskii 1948